Long before she sashayed her way to international acclaim, she was simply Freda Josephine McDonald, born to a washerwoman in St. Louis in the early 20th century. But her exotic appeal and sensuous performances propelled her onto the world stage as Josephine Baker, whose early years are the subject of the musical "Josephine Tonight," now playing at MetroStage.
"I was told this would blow me away and it definitely lived up to that prediction," said Alexandria City Councilwoman Del Pepper following the Feb. 4 performance. "It is so powerful, so energetic. Everyone needs to go see this."
At the helm of the production is Broadway royalty Maurice Hines, who serves as both director and choreographer for the show.
"This has been such an incredible experience," an enthusiastic Hines said as he mingled with fans following the show. "Carolyn [Griffin] is such a giving person and is truly in love with the theater. She nurtures artists in a way that is very rare, which is why we all love working with her."
With book and lyrics by Sherman Yellen and music by the late Wally Harper, "Josephine Tonight" is an ambitious work that chronicles Baker's formative years. Over the course of more than two dozen musical numbers, Baker transforms herself from a young awkward teen doing the "Chicken Strut" for coins outside the local Piggly-Wiggly to a confident and sophisticated international superstar.
Portraying the famous chanteuse is Zurin Villanueva, a polished, vivacious and charismatic performer who brings a calculated and gawky juvenile grace to the role of young Josephine. Villanueva dazzles the crowd with her footwork, her smile and her vocal agility, which was on full display despite an illness earlier in the week.
"I was sick for five or six days and had to talk through a few of the early performances," Villanueva said. "But the song 'Get On With It' kept ringing in my ears and helped me make it through tonight."
Aisha de Hass does dual duty as Josephine's mother, Carrie McDonald, and vaudevillian performer Big Bertha Smith. With vocals that soar to the rafters, de Haas pluckily carries out the role's continuing task as narrator.
Debra Walton and James Alexander are the purposely cheesy "Slap Happy Joneses," who give young Josephine her first professional start. Both tackle multiple roles throughout the show, as does James T. Lane as Eddie Baker, one of Josephine's husbands.
The magical set is the work of scenic designer Klyph Stanford, with costumes by Helen Hayes award winner Reggie Ray. An on-stage band conducted by David Alan Bunn completes the transformation of the former lumber warehouse on North Royal Street to that of a world stage for the inimitable Baker.
The script's narrative of Josephine bumpy but upward path to fame falls short in only one area — it ends far too soon and leaves the audience wanting for more. As delightful a youthful figure as she may have been, Baker eventually grew to become one of the elite of great French cabaret singers that included such names as Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Aznavour.
Baker went on to work with Dr. Martin Luther King on behalf of civil rights and was the only female to speak at the March on Washington in 1968. She died in 1975 at the age of 68 and left the world still wanting more.
Behind the direction and choreography of Hines, "Josephine Tonight" is a dazzling display of talent that tops anything seen on Broadway in recent years. Once is not enough for a show this good.
"Josephine Tonight" is playing now through March 18 at Metrostage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. For tickets or more information, call 703-548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.